Americana Music Country Music

Perfect Song #7: “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford version)

This is one badass song! If there ever was a “man” song, it would have to be this recording. It is right up there as tough as any Led Zeppelin number. Merle Travis wrote it about the trials and tribulations that his brother faced as a coal miner. He recorded it in 1947, but his was more of a country-folk ballad. Frankie Laine, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The Dandy Warhols, Old Crow Medicine Show, and a slew of other artists have recorded this classic, but it is the Tennessee Ernie Ford version that stands out as the definitive version.

From the start, it did not have the ingredients for a cutting-edge pop number. The main instruments that work with the vocals are a clarinet (with a bass clarinet in the background) and a trumpet. A brushed snare drum and upright bass follow the vocals in a smooth jazz sense. It isn’t until the last chorus that we hear any other instrumentation: a laid-back rhythm guitar and an ending accented by a harp. Then there’s the snapping of the finger. Like the lighting of a match or the sound of a pick hitting rock far away. The minimalist instrumentation makes the listener pay attention to the story, with every instrument accenting the words and making sure that you understand what was just said.

But it is that voice! Ford’s bass-baritone vocals make every word sound like it is coming form the depths of a coal mine. Earth-shaking, heart-pounding tone of a voice! Before this recording, Ford was known for singing some corny country & western songs, as well as a few ballads with Kay Starr. He did have a Number 1 hit with “Mule Train” back in the late 1940s.

Travis wrote a number of verses for the song, but the four that Ford used are the most memorable, telling of what a man is made of, how he is a slave to the coal company and its store, how he can’t be made to “walk the line” by any woman, and getting on his bad side may mean death. Some of these ideas would not go over well in a song today, but back in the early 1950s, when coal miners were still revered by the common man yet treated poorly by the rich mine owners, one could hardly argue with the singer.

As you listen, you can actually hear this voice as it is working in the mine. You also wonder how much time it would take for one man to mine 16 tons of coal. But you don’t question it, because you have high respect for this guy. You KNOW he could kick your ass in! Everything that doesn’t work in a pop song falls into place to work here. In under three minutes, you get an autobiography of a working man. Someone who has broken his back to make sure that he has a roof over his and his family’s head as well as food on the table.

I could listen to this song a thousand times and never get bored. Ford’s voice is beyond human – it is from the gods! The story moves you, knowing that there is a man out there working his life away yet still can be tough as a rock after quitting time. This was rock-n-roll attitude before the media caught on to what Elvis and Chuck Berry were doing. So pay attention, a recording like this comes around only once or twice in a lifetime.

Chew on it and comment.